Sugar v. High Fructose Corn Syrup

Introduction

In our daily diet, we consume sugars regularly. It is part of our daily routine. It could be in the beverages or the colas that we drink or the ice creams that we eat. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is purported to add fewer calories to our diet, is also added to a variety of foods for various reasons. There has been some controversy on whether high-fructose corn syrup can mainly be implicated in the rising rates of obesity worldwide. This essay explores the pros and cons of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, the ideal recommended intake, and what the healthy choice is.

Sugar

On average, it has been estimated that we consume more sugar than we need, i.e. about 22.2 teaspoons per day. This excess sugar, however, adds up only “empty calories” in our diet. This is in turn leads to weight gain with its attendant complications like heart disease and diabetes etc. (Consumer Reports on Health, 2010.)

Brown or raw sugar is as nutritionally “empty’ with as many calories when compared to white sugar or high fructose corn syrup (Consumer Reports on Health, 2010). Sometimes, the cultivation of sugar cane or beets is done without the use of any chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides. This ‘organic sugar,’ which, although is eco-friendly, might not provide any health benefits. Similarly, although maple syrup and honey are delicious, they lack appropriate nutrients; although blackstrap molasses has calcium and iron, the taste is quite strong (Consumer Reports on Health, 2010.)

Probably, the ‘best sugar’ would be the sugar that nature has provided in dairy products, fruits, etc (‘natural sugar’). These contain, in addition to sugar, all the required nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that the body needs (Consumer Reports on Health, 2010.)

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

HFCS is a “sweetener made from cornstarch processed with enzymes and acids” (Consumer Reports, 2010). The most commonly used types of HFCS (HFCS-42 and HFCS-55). “The advantage to food manufacturers is that the free monosaccharides in HFCS provide better flavor enhancement, stability, freshness, texture, color, pourability, and consistency in foods in comparison to sucrose” (Moeller et al, 2009). In the United States, at least 40% of products with caloric sweeteners are comprised of HFCS and in soft drinks, HFCS is the only sweetener present (Bray, 2004). The composition of HFCS is almost the same as cane sugar (50% glucose and 50% fructose) and contains almost equivalent calories. HFCS is found in baked products, soft drinks, salad dressings, ketchup, and yogurts. Cost-wise, it is somewhat cheaper than sugar and has other favorable properties like the ability to maintain color, texture, and flavor of the food (Consumer Reports, 2010.)

Numerous concerns have been raised about the health effects of HFCS. Some researchers feel that there is a link between it and obesity, while others feel it is linked to the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (Consumer Reports, 2010.)

The digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose are quite different from that of glucose. “Hepatic metabolism of fructose favors de novo lipogenesis and in addition, unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production” (Bray, 2004).

Since insulin and leptin are the main actors as far as food intake and body weight regulation are concerned, fructose in the diet may play a role in weight gain (Bray, 2004.) In addition, “calorically sweetened beverages may enhance caloric overconsumption. Thus, the increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity worldwide” (Bray, 2004.)

Another argument is that since both HFCS and sucrose have a similar composition, especially post absorption, it cannot be said that HFCS is the cause of obesity or other morbidities when compared to sucrose. Currently, there is a “lack of clear evidence to ban or restrict the use of HFCS or to insist the use of warning labels on products containing HFCS” (Moeller et al, 2009). It should also be noted that the HFCS-obesity hypothesis is supported neither in the United States nor worldwide (White, 2008.)

Ideal recommended levels

There is not yet any clear consensus on the amount of added sugar that can be eaten. According to The Institute of Medicine, it is set at “the threshold at 25 percent of daily calories, about 500 calories if you consume 2,000 a day” (Consumer Reports, 2010.) According to The American Heart Association, women should “get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar; men, 150” (Consumer Reports, 2010.)

The controversy

Over the years, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the health effects of consuming too much sugar (whatever the source). There are two opposing sides; the nutrition experts-who believes that sugar adds only to empty calories in our diets, thus causing weight gain and its attendant complications, while on the other side is the sugar industry (especially HFCS) that insist that the product is natural, without any side effects of weight gain or other complications.

The American Heart Association appears to be on the side of the nutrition experts and has stated that “high intake of added sugars is implicated in many poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke. And it is recommended that women consume no more than 100 calories a day, or about 6 1/2 teaspoons, from added sugars: men, no more than 150 calories, or about 9 1/2 teaspoons. This includes table sugar, brown sugar, HFCS, honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, agave syrup, and other caloric sweeteners” (Consumer Reports, 2010.)

Conclusion

Sugar, in any form, consumed in excess, contributes only to ’empty calories.’ This, in turn, leads to obesity and its attendant complications like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There is a lack of unmistakable evidence that HFCS is nutritionally any different from sugar (Nanci, n.d) or that it alone contributes to an increased incidence of obesity. There is also, not yet, any clear consensus on the amount of added sugar that can be eaten.

It would be advisable to limit our daily use of added sugars. This can be done by avoiding processed foods and closely inspecting all food labels for any kind of added sugar like fruit juice concentrates, corn sweetener, brown sugar, fructose, etc.

However, it can be said that at least ‘natural sugar’ that is obtained as we consume fruits, dairy products, etc is nutritionally superior and quite safe to our health since it contains most of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in an adequate amount.

References

Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM, 2004. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 79(4):537-43.

Consumer Reports, 2010. “The lowdown on high-fructose corn syrup”. From: www.ConsumerReports.org.

Moeller SM, Fryhofer SA, Osbahr AJ, Robinowitz CB, 2009. The effects of high fructose syrup. J Am Coll Nutr. 28(6):619-26.

Nanci, Hellmich. “Consumers are caught in sugar battle.” USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.

White JS. 2008. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. Am J Clin Nutr. ; 88(6):1716S-1721S.